Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Beauty and the Beast
Do you see agates in these beautiful swirls? Or tantalizing, cinnamon-sprinkled cappuccino? In truth, they’re wounds inflicted on Louisiana by a paper mill whose aerators churn effluent in frothing wastewater ponds. The plant in Baton Rouge manufactures printer paper and a popular paper towel brand, using as much as 16 million gallons of freshwater daily, according to photographer J Henry Fair, and releasing such chemicals as dioxin, formaldehyde, and lead and mercury compounds in the process.

Fair is fascinated by societal impacts, like this industrial scab. “Whether it’s Mayan ruins or a ruined factory, they both are icons of the civilization that produced them, and they tell a story,” he says. In his new book, The Day After Tomorrow: Images of Our Earth in Crisis (powerHouse books), Fair focuses on American industry, and his subjects range from an oil-streaked Gulf of Mexico to blasted mountains in West Virginia.

Armed with a telephoto and a wide-angle lens, he typically shot from 700 to 800 feet above ground in a plane often operated by SouthWings, a nonprofit that supports conservation education. In the project’s early stages, Fair sought all sorts of scarred landscapes, then researched how they ended up that way. “Each image was its own process of discovery,” he says. As his work matured, the process reversed: Fair chose the story he wanted to relate before finding a locale to make his point.

The photos in The Day After Tomorrow appear virtually the way Fair framed them. (He later added minor lightening and darkening.) Though outright eye-catching, most of the compositions are mysterious—until closer inspection. “The process of abstraction makes the picture immediately more interesting,” says Fair. “By definition, not knowing its nature makes us stop and say, ‘What is it?’ ” At first glance the scene above looks like amorphous splotches. After recognizing green trees, orange power lines, a road, and a shed, the ugly reality sets in.

Fair hopes the messages he sends will inspire his audiences to go greener, as he has tried to do. “I was already fairly low imprint, but the more I’ve learned about the real consequences of this stuff, the more I have changed my behavior,” he says. Still, Fair resists naming names in his book. Vilifying industry gets us nowhere, he believes, because, in the end, the onus to reform is on us. “As a citizen we have to know what the content is of the products we buy,” he says. We can’t afford the unexamined life any longer.—Julie Leibach

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